Music is- Emerging thoughts with lyrics from Gianmaria Testa- Modern migration and musics’ potential contribution

Gianmaria Testa was an extraordinary Italian singer and songwriter. Born in a province of Cuneo in 1958 he was raised by an artistic family of agriculturists, with a strong passion for music. Gianmaria Testa died in Alba in 2016. His success and work is an example for cross-cultural and transnational art and thought: He was a singer songwriter and railway worker, discovered in France, with his passion and heart grown in Italy. Gianmaria Testa dedicated a fair amount of notion and words to refugees and the modern migration.


1)Gianmaria Testa

He left  rhythms, melodies and words full of poetry and play behind, revealing a delicate and precise view of what life and humanity means to him. Many of his songs tell us listeners about migration and witness the importance of it. They tell us about escape, arrival, flee, adoption, hopes and delusions as well as nostalgia. These topics have  been and still are of great relevance throughout human history.

     His concept album ‘Da questa parte del mare’  – which translates into ‘On this side of the sea’ and was published in 2006, is committed to modern migration and its crisis implied, the human crisis of the story, not political and bureaucratic only. It describes personal challenges as well as social bias we as humans encounter facing the phenomenon of migration now-a-days and have probably always encountered during bigger population shifts.

Referring to this exact album in 2015 Falk Häfner, a journalist of ‘BR-Klassik’ asked Testa whether he thinks that the European reaction to modern migration and all the issues that come along with it happened to late. It is pretty unconceivable how ignorant most parts of Europe were about what was going on around Italian shores way back. It was only raff 10 years after Testas’ album was released, that the awareness among European leaders and responsible institutions has significantly increased.

The concept album ‘On this side of the sea’ describes people who take a boat for crossing the Mediterranean Sea hoping to recover from their past and start fresh on the other side of the sea. It is this other side of the sea the ‘teller of the story’, Gianmaria testa seems to be neither on nor off. Meanwhile the public discourse around refugees developed due to the increasing urgency. It was the augmented arrival of refugees in northern European states, that were almost ‘spared’ from ‘floods of refugees’ for geographical reasons in the preceding years, that woke the sleeping dogs. To be ‘spared’ from ‘floods of refugees’ is an expression common and frequently used all over European tabloids and broadsheets, as well as national TV-news reporting on modern migration. Such expressions attribute negative associations to asylum seekers and refugees and are far off hand. They compare those people to incontrollable forces of nature such as floods and implicitly suggest they are a ‘catastrophe’ a country which’s borders are not on the sea side can be spared of. Such associations and linguistic failures cause gross misinterpretation of a wholly different situation.


2) Concept album “Da questa parte del mare”

Contrasting this inappropriate conception given to us by mass media, Gianmaria Testas’ wording in his songs entails a human, deep and more just conception of issues regarding migration. He emphasises the vulnerability of the asylum seeking crowd rather than illustrating them as a ‘problem to be solved’, or ‘seeking’ people, trying to find access to ‘our’ Europe.

I grant this article to the art with which Testa enriched the music scene in 2006:       The discographic work and album ‘Da questa parte del mare’ or ‘On this side of the sea’ by taking a closer look to the lyrics and possible perceptions of some lines.

One of musics’ many amenities is its rhythmic and semantic structure which often contains messages that can be analised restrospectively. Those messages  involve crucial aspects and aim a deeper understanding of the tenor processed within the music. I asked myself why Gianmaria Testa sang about modern migration the way he did. Probably for giving a voice, his voice, to people who for various reasons do not have either voices to speak nor legal rights to act the way he does in the world he grew up in and lived in when he composed the lyrics and those persons were entering it in a struggle. With his music Testa contributed to fight the absent-mindedness regarding refugees in Europe and all over the world and it is therefor especially worthwhile listening to.

In addition to this motivation singing about migration and escape can remind everyone of us the deep need that ignites both actions in the heart of anyone who desires to start over in search of a reality that is congruent with a ‘decent living’. The pursuit of less than happiness, just the basic needs and instruments needed to create life.

Referring to his 2006 album Gianmaria Testa stated: ‘I talk about intuitive racism even inherent in children, that is racism toward any diversity. This notion needs to be combated with intelligence and reasoning. I understand the (racism) of Italians, including my very own sense of irritation coming up some time. I understand it and can explain it to myself, but I do not accept it. Those are approaches that differ greatly: I understand it thinking it is not just to have it (the racism) and that it is ought to be contrasted and combated somehow.’ (translated after Antonio Piccolo 2007). For contrasting this distinct racism Testa composed and sang:

‘In the depth of the profound sea I leave my chant that doesn’t console, for who has departed and lost himself to the world in the profound sea’ (translated from Gianmaria Testa ‘Infondo al mare’).  He sings addressing all people lost to the sea and the world. Ultimately those lines involve a broader understanding that goes beyond literal perception only. They can be read regarding the derogatory labelled ‘illegal immigrants’ as well as referring to any other person who feels lost. For Gianmaria Testa being part of the planet Earth was a resemblance of peace and quiet. A peace and quiet very distinct from the dispersion represented in his lyrics. Digging your hands deep into the earth, something Testa often did while growing up in a family of agriculturists, gave him a sense of home and belonging (Häfner 2015). It is this sense of sinking your very own hands into the earth and feeling its roots naturally, that has nothing to do with national and artificial categories.

In the song entitled ‘Ritals’- ‘Rituals’, Gianmaria Testas conveys the phenomenon of loss, pursuit and return to consciousness in a more concrete manner: ‘And yet we too knew the smell of the cargo hold, the bitter smell of leaving We too knew [there’d be] a language to unlearn and a new language to acquire in a haste, before [learning to ride] a bicycle’ ( translated from Gianmaria Testa,’Ritals’). This musical expression reminds on who was obliged to leave a place in bitterness and reluctantly, in pursuit of something better. The song recounts the initial obstacles this anonymous group of people encounters after having reached the other side of the sea: learning a new language, unlearning their first language possibly. The first moves of integration. Singing ‘Yet we knew’ Testa experiments empathy including himself in this state of transition. For people who have never had to escape and adopt to a new environment leaving behind everything that was once called ‘home’ to them, it is hard to imagine this transitional state of mind. Words and thus language is an aid for putting us in contact to conceptions out of the ordinary.

Such Lyrics demonstrates the innate potential that lies in music, of transmitting ostensibly alien conceptions to anyone who listens to them. Music is a form of power, an act of communication that can deliver atmospheres sometimes filling the void of words in newspapers, television or other media of communication, censured or confined by other means.

There are countless grounds to which musicians dedicate their voices. A point in case is described in an article published by ‘The Guardian’ in 2015: ‘When rap raged against racism- 2015 and the black protest anthem’ . This article is about rap music used as means for protest giving space to the dissent toward the ongoing and everlasting racism in the United States of America in particular. Rap music thereby enforces the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement- a movement created to reinforce and acknowledge the value of black peoples’ lives,  a movement toward justice. Hip hop and rap plays a fundamental role as an instrument of participation and political rebellion on an artistic level. Musically charged revolts are treasurable and discerning new genres like Maria Testas’ song writing illustrates the versatile outcomes of musics’ potential. The political being of arts.



sources:, Gianmaria Testa , testi e canzoni


Br Klassik, Falk Häfner : Gianmaria Teta gestorben(2015), Antonio Piccolo (2007) ; testo “Una barca scura”, testo “Ritals”


Thanks to Monica Cavaliere, my cousin for having a look over myoriginal Italian article.






Points in case regarding emigration in Italy- from upper to lower ‘class’

Please note that the first part only includes rough descriptions of historic, political and sociological situations located in the past , as the core of this piece are the portraits of persons, who come from diverse social and economic back grounds in Italy today.

In his book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938) George Orwell writes about his experience of comradeship and community in Spain, a decisive feature indicating the presence of a socialist body of thought that developed as the civil war commenced. He notes that ‘Many of the normal motives of civilized life-snobbishness money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.- had simply ceased to exist’ (Orwell, 38).  Sadly those only ceased to exist while blood was being shed. Orwell’s book both lights a spark of hope in socialist hearts as well as marking out the difficulties and bias of creating equality through (violent) revolution.

Similar to Spain fascist values clashed with humanitarian and Marxist values during the Italian civil war (1942-1945). Ultimately, in Italy the aftermath of WW2 and the civil war was what made it even harder to enforce solidary and communal ideals.  A crucial feature of this aftermath was the disunity of mindsets and distribution of work places and wealth , that enforced the economic gap separating northern- from southern regions of Italy. At last it was not the ideals mentioned that clashed, but part of Italy striking with neo liberal reforms (south) and part of it adopting the new wave successfully (the north).

Yesterday’s fights’ are still conceivable today. The Italian government failed to catch up with other European nations’ policies that are essential for retaining significant socio-economic standards in a society based on capitalism. In Italy’s south you sense that you are in a political zone tainted with corruption and poor government more than elsewhere in the country. This is due to the misrule which often results in Mafiosi holding political offices. Rather than deducing the misery of people from mere financial factors, the core issue is structural and intertwined with the inefficient organisation and distribution of goods and work-power. The EU supported southern regions of Italy with 91 billion € in  2013. Half of that sum has basically been wasted in dubious mini-projects organised by Italian politicians. Altogether the situation culminated in a loss of faith in ‘the government’ and establishment and growing poverty in south Italy, contrasting the prosperity of northern Italy. Today many Italian citizens see it like that: The North is clean, the south is dodgy. The North is lawful, the south is criminal. The North is developed, the south is stagnant. Growth vs. decline.

Emigration, Mati art gallery

A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted.

When Considering the current situation, it is paramount to view Italy as part of Europe. Italy is growing weaker. The ‘clean and lawful’ north moves further up. Emigration to strong and sovereign EU members appears to be THE SALVATION for young Italian adults at the moment: Especially for those who were born and raised in the ‘ostensibly dull’ south. Not only work-power but a whole generation is being lost to the European and other economic forefronts. The noted Author of the book ‘Gomorrah’, Roberto Saviano , even argues that sooner or later the Mafia will leave southern Italy too since even criminal business is on the decline

Let me specify how that generation is being lost and what mind sets and correlated behavior fuel this  process. We have emigrants who abandon Italy expecting to improve their  lives in doing so, hence energy and ideals are withdrawn from Italy together with the emigrating crowd. In addition to that simple equation, young people who are forced to stay or do not want to leave Italy join the Mafia or give themselves away to drugs and other clandestine activities in order to chase their anxieties away and veil their despair, numb themselves or  quit existing by taking their own lives. A disturbing assumption prevails here: There is literally no work in the south. This is not tared by the brush, I have talked to people living in the southern regions of Italy about these processes over and over again, and the strategies of young adults to ‘regain control’ over their lives are not unlikely to be the ones mentioned here. Nevertheless it’s got to be mentioned, that there are other more successful coping strategies, that aim regaining control on a structural, political level and are therefor less destructive. The point is that those are not accessible and acknowledged to and by  a wider crowd.

After having mentioned several reasons for the perceived concern and impotence it is pivotal to keep in mind that each human being shapes the society he lives in, no matter how powerless, passive, caught, blank or afraid one might feel. To be aware that you are an active participant of this world is important for each individual. The loss of this notion is dangerous because people who are not aware of their power are easily turned into instruments and taken advantage of by those who seam to be  in a powerful position. Ethically speaking this dynamic is deeply undesirable. We should not long for a society where most people live life feeling like passive spectators. The three people I portray here are somehow both, spectators and actors. The age all three are in is part of the life-time in  which people usually try to become independent- which means getting hold of  work, finding and taking care of family, housing and love- affairs – in western societies. Their names were changed for discretion.

Matteo, 27, born near S. (a city in Campania, a southwestern region) is an excellent example for showing the role of wealth and elite education for emigration. Those two privileges are not very present in the south of Italy due to the distribution mentioned earlier. His parents are doctors, whose values partly derive from  their parents: The father’s belong to the lower class since they were peasants, whilst the mother’s parents belong to the upper class. Nicola grew up hovering between socialists and bourgeois ideologies. His parents’ ideals turned out rather bourgeois, or (neo-)liberal-elitist. They believe in the ultimate power of money as an instrument that permits one to reach societie’s peak. Both influenced Matteo’s choice to study finance and business at universities such as Stanford and Harvard 6 years ago. Over the years Matteo lost most of the socialist ideals he used to be committed to due to the adaption mechanisms needed for elite education. There are ways to avoid adaption but most students can not resist it. Matteo compromised with elite education structures  in order to become part of them.  Resisting the possibility of having an elite education  would have been put down as an absurd rebellion from his behalf by many of his family members. He would have been put off as ill advised or confused probably. Nevertheless, his professional choice was somehow rebellious: His father wanted him to inherit his medical practice. Matteo rejected  his fathers’ sedentary lifestyle and conservative idea about inheriting what he fought for to his son. Whilst Matteo’s father worked his way from rags to riches, Matteo didn’t even know what life is like without having a modern housemaid until he moved to America.

Luigi’s existence, 31, born in L. (a city in Campania), illustrates how daunting imposed expectations  can work on ones’ educational ambitions. Luigi was born and raised in a middle class family and many values transmitted during his up bringing led to the pretty common paradigm of the young middle class in Italy: choosing ‘safety’ above passion. He is a doctor with a safe job. Both of Luigis’ parents are teachers who convey and live socialist ideals and were of moral and financial  support for their son. In (southern) Italy it is almost impossible to earn one’s living during academic formation as a student for there is no decent work for undergraduates. That is one of the reasons why Luigi took the prudential decision of becoming a doctor. It was mostly about increasing the chances of getting a secure job. This could be seen as  a phenomenon of  socio-economic captivity where people rationalise on their trajectory in life regarding financial stability instead of taking a leap and following passions (if they are not money-efficient). Life shaping decisions that may come across as wise, are actually restricted by existential fear. So this is why Luigi studied medicine for 6 years, finished with 110 cum cum laude (highest score at universities in Italy) and worked for over 4 years doing his specialization abroad. During a confidential conversation he indicated to me that teaching is what he really aspires to. What he really aspired and still aspires to  simply did not meet the expectation of getting him a secure job. This phenomena is not only wide spread in Italy of course, but the pressure Luigi was under differs a lot from the pressure he would have probably felt in Germany as a member of the middle class.

Last but not least there is Giorgio, 30, representing the lower class of southern Italy here. Giorgios’ life aid is education. Rationalising helps him through the roughness of everyday life. He lives in a small apartment with his depressed brother, who sleeps on a grabby couch in the kitchen and his mother, who sleeps in a room that is something in between a living room, a bedroom and an office. All three live on the mother’s low income and part of the grandfather’s pension. The notion of having individual space  is almost unknown when you live like this in Naples (region Campania). Giorgio is extremely idealistic. He is part of  a desperate but vivid class.  His master in sociology and his will to go on taking an academic path and engaging in research is the spark of hope for a better tomorrow which burns inside Giorgio. If it was not for the community he believes in, the apparently inescapable dependency he is caught in would make him give in I fear. Being with him, I sensed that his educational formation is about understanding his stake in society, since it appears to be a perpetual circle of struggling with short cuts,  precarious work,  escapism and all the filth that comes with it. Not to mention the responsibility he feels toward his younger brother and the stress he and his mother are undergoing due to his situation, but that is material for another story.

Both Matteo and Luigi have already experienced how going abroad can benefit your career, and this goes for pretty much everyone regardless where he or she was brought up and what social back ground an individual lives in. But especially for Matteo, who has recently decided to move to Washington for work, there are no equal alternatives found in his home country Italy, so that you could argue about how ‘forced’ this step of emigration is. This is what I think should not be the case.

The time has come to fight for something better. Maybe people should choose revolution over emigration, for I know that most Italian emigrants do love their ‘home’ and you risk ending up bitter over life, or at least resented over some part , if you give up on what you love. What sacrifices would it take to stay in a country and be confronted with inequality and growing poverty? Is Matteo happier than Luigi or Giorgio? Would emigrating make their lives easier? That question is highly hypothetical as Giorgio for example couldn’t even consider emigrating for he and his family do not have the economic supplies needed.

We need revolution and emancipation for long term improvements, people ready to ‘sacrifice’, meaning fight and stand up, in order to make the last years of their life or the next generations’ lives’ possibly better. Revolution is motivated by a rejection of the status quo. Within the rejection there are ideals that need to be implemented for changing the status quo. The high emigration rate in Italy is a form of protest, not revolution. Hence emigration will not ameliorate the status quo but it is an indicator for the need of change and reforms. An indicator that should be turned into new ideals and reforms that come with them.

sources: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)